Review: Summer Rolls, Park Theatre

Vietnam is a country full of culture, tradition and fascination. With a recent history that revolves around the battle for freedom – first from the French and then within its own civil war where America infamously intervened – there is a sense among its inhabitants that they’ve never been allowed to truly flourish and some power is always holding them back. 

It is this sentiment that is echoed within Tuyen Do’s first full length play, Summer Rolls, where the potential to say something important is genuine and the writing is humorous. However, sub-par acting and uninspiring storytelling techniques ensure the evening is moderately enjoyable but, overall, underwhelming. 

The Park Theatre in Finsbury Park utilises the space to the fullest effect. Designed by Moi Tran, there is a finely crafted, slightly elevated, wooden set which sits behind a small dining table and a wooden floor where the family at the play’s centre discuss their ambitions and complaints.

Yet, these complaints can be accused of being clichés. Older son Anh (Michael Phong Le) is a first class maths graduate who can’t get a job, while his young sister Mai (Anna Nguyen) wants to discover her own identity through her creative passion – photography. 

Considering this, by the time Mai starts sneaking around with her black boyfriend, David (Keon Martial-Phillip and the best performer of the night) we know her fragile relationship with her family is doomed.

The only time there is success for the family is when Anh and his Mother (Linh-Dan Pham) open their Vietnamese restaurant, “Summer Rolls”, but even then they work extremely long hours and put up with racist and ignorant comments.

Mai’s mother is strict and determined with “enough fight for the whole family”. While she’s afforded the best lines, moaning about her husband’s laziness or her daughter’s lack of effort, Pham rushes her speech making it difficult to empathise with her struggle.

And the family’s struggle is real. Mai’s father (Kwong Loke), a relatively peaceful man, was a prisoner of war in Vietnam and still suffers from trauma. His good friend Mr Dinh (David Lee-Jones) feels foreign and second rate as he accepts the best he can do is own a Chinese restaurant. 

All of these characters should be exploding with inspirational and eye opening stories, and within the audience we’re waiting for such moments to ignite. Yet, it never happens. There is no tear jerking scene where our emotions are pulled so as to feel the true hardship and inspiration of their tales.  

The closest the play comes to this moment is when Mr Dinh reveals a story of the war to Mai. As he gently exposes the countless layers of a forgotten past he’s worked to forget, we begin to slowly feel the weight of his past. Unfortunately, however, the feeling is short lived.  

There is also good usage of the radio to depict the issues within Iraq in 2003, playing as a relevant example of another country where America go in to “help” but end up doing more damage than good.

Other than that, there is too much unnecessary repeating of the same message and while the themes of immigration, identity and acceptance are obvious, they aren’t explored in such a way that feels new or innovative.

In the first Vietnamese play staged in England, appreciation must be given for finally giving a voice to such an interesting and underrepresented part of the world. However, while Summer Rolls is a solid first attempt, here’s to hoping the subsequent stories don’t feel so held back.

Summer Rolls is playing at Park Theatre until 13 July. For more information and tickets, see the Park Theatre website.